First Sunday in Lent, Year A
My Farewell Sunday
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
This morning our scripture text is a familiar one for the first Sunday in Lent, a story that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We hear from Matthew today who was writing to a Jewish Christian community intent on knowing who Jesus is as the Human One and the Son of God. And we hear language traditional and colloquial to Matthew’s time, “the devil” or “Satan” who “tempts” Jesus to see if he can trip him up and then “angels” who come to minister to him. I did a particular word study of the New Testament Greek to understand these words better. If we can, let’s put aside our preconceived notions of these words, images of anthropomorphic evil with a red body suit and horns, of little white winged cherubs, of traditional good versus evil, one of these must die notions, to hear this text in a new way. I am reading from the Common English Bible and I have used my word study to amplify our understanding of the text.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the [accuser, the slanderer, known colloquially as the devil] might test him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The [slanderer] came to him and said, "Since you are God's Son, command these stones to become bread." Jesus replied, "It's written, People won't live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God." After that the [slanderer] brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, "Since you are God's Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won't hit your foot on a stone." Jesus replied, "Again it's written, ‘Don't test the Lord your God.’" Then [the slanderer] brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, "I'll give you all these if you bow down and worship me." Jesus responded, "Go away, Satan, [you slandering adversary!], because it's written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God." The [slanderer] left Jesus, and angels, [messengers of the Holy,] came and took care of him. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37952-37964).
In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with a series of songs influenced by his understanding at the time of born-again Christianity. Not traditional praise music as was popular at the time. It was after all Bob Dylan. Though he did not remain a born-again Christian on his faith journey, he wrote some wonderfully pointed lyrics. This one song always comes to me when I hear the story we just read together. It’s titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody...[full lyrics]
Dylan gives us the clue to Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness with the adversary. When you go off seeking on your journey of faith…. which really we are all doing all the time…. who will you listen to? Who will you trust? Who will you serve? Jesus had just been baptized by John and heard a voice from heaven say, "This is my [Child] whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." (Matt. 3:17) So after this affirmation, Jesus does something we see him do many times in the gospels, he goes into the wilderness to pray, to seek the Holy, led by the Spirit. And it at just such times for all of us –and so for Jesus – that doubts arise, questions of trust. “Am I really hearing what I think I am hearing? Should I really be doing what I think the Spirit of God is calling me to do? Who am I to think I can do such things, to answer such a call? To even think that God is “speaking” to me?”
If we are seekers of the Holy in any way shape or form, followers of Jesus, we will have times when we wonder about our listening skills. This is what is happening in the wilderness story that we traditionally hear at the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar year, set aside for intentional seeking of God. So instead of seeing this story as a battle of superheroes, good versus evil, with one of them getting smote in the end, let’s listen to this story this Lent as a story about listening. It echoes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden naively listening to the serpent, the adversary. They learned that naïve listening has consequences. I have learned that lesson several times over in my life. I bet you may have as well.
In the wilderness, Jesus is supported by a long legacy of listening. He is steeped in the traditions of his family faith, in the teachings of Mary and Joseph and the rabbis of his youth. He is steeped in listening to the teachings of scripture as he answers each of the adversary’s challenges with words from Deuteronomy, teachings Moses gave the people as they entered the Promised Land. “God fed the people with manna in the wilderness and did not let them starve…therefore we know that God’s people do not live by bread alone, but by trust in God.” “Yes, I know God will hold me up and support me, but foolishly testing God by intentionally putting myself in harm’s way is not how I want to be in relationship with God…we are already in a relationship of trust.” Then finally, “Get behind me, Slanderer of God! I do not follow the Holy One for wealth and power, but for faithfulness, forgiveness and love.”
So how are our listening skills as we seek the Holy One this Lent? We, too, hear the voices that distract us from seeking faith, voices that mistrust the ways of God. How will we hone our listening skills? Hold that question as I tell you a bit about how I been honing mine.
Many of you have asked what I will be doing after retirement from parish ministry. I have been training over the last two years to be a spiritual director. As of March 18, I will have completed my training and be officially certified. And I must thank all of you for this opportunity because the continuing education money that Plymouth provides its pastors as part of our call agreements has supported the bulk of my training. You all go with me into my next phase of ministry! But what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is someone who listens. She accompanies another holy soul on their spiritual journey by listening to their experiences, their questions, their doubts as well as their deep sense of knowing. The person might be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or another faith, spiritual, but not religious, simply a seeker of the Divine. Through listening and observing, wondering with the directee, a spiritual director is a companion on the journey with some skills to invite deeper contemplation of the journey and deeper listening to the self where the Holy resides. Spiritual directors work one on one with people, in person or now just as commonly on Zoom. And if this process intrigues you, your two pastors after March 1st, Hal and Marta, can help you find a spiritual director. I cannot be that person because of appropriate boundaries. However, being the good listeners that they are, they will help you find the right spiritual director for you!
Now back to our question for today… How will we hone our listening skills this Lent as followers of Jesus? You don’t need two years of intensive training. You – we - have already started! We are here in worship listening to God’s Word in scripture, in music and song, listening to God’s presence in our lives in prayer [and the sacrament of communion], in fellowship with one another, in the call to service through our mission activities. How will we deepen our listening to the Holy this Lent?
Here is what I leave with you as I retire from parish ministry and move into the ministry of spiritual direction: Know that the Holy is immanent, right here and right now, with us, inherent in and permanently pervading and sustaining all that is, from the depths of space to the depths of you. We cannot escape God and God’s loving presence. Doubts may arise. Thoughts and decisions that feel like tests or temptations. When this happens, listen to the Holy within you, for you are each made in God’s image. Listen by steeping yourself in what truly sustains you, not just entertains you. What sustains you, nature, solitude and silence, prayer, reading, conversation with those you trust to listen with you to the Holy. Seeking you will find listening. Listening you will find direction and you will know who you serve. We cannot escape serving someone, as Bob Dylan, reminds us. We cannot escape listening deeply, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We can trust that in all the process of seeking, listening, serving we are held by the immanent, all-pervading love of God. I will be listening with you…even if from a distance. However, we will still be connected by that invisible string that is God’s immanent and loving presence.
Blessings and love and prayers for you, my beloved family of faith at Plymouth. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
Moving Toward Life
Joel 2.28-29; Acts 2.14-18
Second Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scriptures texts today come from two vastly different books separated chronologically by at least three centuries, the Hebrew scriptures book, Joel and the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. However, the prophetic writer of Joel in around 250 BCE and the gospel writer, Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, most likely between 70 and 90 CE, were both addressing communities in profound change. The small agrarian community of Joel had just experienced an extensive locust plague interpreted in those times as harbinger of the last days before the cataclysmic coming of the Lord. They were most likely enduring food shortages, attacks by Phoenician and Greek slave traders, and a great deal of fear for their survival. Joel’s prophetic poetry speaks to them of a past time of separation from God and then the coming of the time when God would bring abundance and would pour out God’s Spirit upon them.
After [those catastrophic times] I, [the Holy One,] will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 35739-35740).
The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is more familiar to us. It is the story we read each year on Pentecost Sunday fifty days after Easter, the story God’s gift of the Holy Spirit upon his followers, a gift promised by Jesus. The power of God’s Spirit descends on the disciples and friends of Jesus who have been waiting fearfully together in Jerusalem for what was next after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Spiritual chaos wonderfully breaks loose as these faithful ones begin to speak the good news of Jesus to all the Jews from around the known world gathered in Jerusalem for the harvest festival of Pentecost. They are speaking in all the different languages of the visitors! How can this be? These people must be drunk! Yet Peter begins to preach reassuring the people of God’s presence and of the saving grace of Jesus.
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, "Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren't drunk, as you suspect; after all, it's only nine o'clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. [And I would add to Peter’s list, our non-binary, gender fluid siblings will imagine the most amazing possibilities for new life.] [Upon all my people,] I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 42293-42302).
This weekend we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who galvanized the hearts, minds and actions of all those working particularly for the rights of our Black sisters and brothers from 1955 to his death by assassination in April 4,1968. Standing on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in DC on a hot August day in 1963 – yes, 60 years ago this summer – Dr. King called us to dream big with the Spirit for justice, love and the end of racism. We still work to answer that Spirit call. In 1968 he was about to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, radically acting and hoping to end poverty in our nation. But before he could launch this movement he was assassinated. Now just shy of 60 years later Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis have answered the Spirit’s call to end poverty in our nation by launching and co-chairing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Inspired by these spiritual leaders and change agents, how will we dream big, bigger than we have before here at Plymouth for God’s realm of justice and love in the world? The people of Joel’s time were called to God’s dreams and visions in a time of extreme change. Peter and the other disciples and friends of Jesus were called to God’s dreams and visions in a time of extreme change at Pentecost. So was Dr. King. Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis have been called in our times of extreme change. How will we here at Plymouth answer Spirit’s timeless call to dream God’s dreams and share God’s new visions, to prophecy for justice and love?
The pastors got an email from one of our members this weekend sharing that the reputation Plymouth has in the Interfaith Council community of Fort Council is one of action and involvement in social justice. Thanks be to God! I am so grateful for this and for all of you on the frontlines, as well as those on the frontlines of caring for our community internally through Stephen Ministry, Congregation Visitors, leading in our Christian formation programs, caring for our building and numerous other gifts of volunteer time. We do well in frontline work.
What about our soul work? I believe, it is also time to up our soul work game in growth to keep pace with Spirit. This work does not focus on numbers of people or money, though eventually that can be part of the growth. I am talking growth and transformation within where we can encounter God’s visions and dreams that deepen our worship of God and makes God’s realm visible in the lives of people individually and collectively…..by Inviting, Transforming and Sending. (To quote our mission statement!) I believe it’s time to pay more attention to Transforming, to the transformation of our hearts and souls as people of God. Not so we can navel gaze, but so that we can up our dreaming game in Inviting and Sending.
In her book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, adrienne maree brown, challenges those of us who aspire to be change agents in our world to move toward life by creating more possibilities. She writes "What we are all really asking…is how do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to practice being different?” [i] We know the world needs to change. We know as followers of Jesus, as seekers of truth and justice, that all creation is in a world of pain, to use an urban dictionary idiom. How do we practice being different in this world that needs healing change?
We listen. We each learn to listen to Spirit within. We learn to listen to Spirit together in community as She works in subtle ways through our frontline work inside and outside the church. Listening to God’s Holy Spirit may sound daunting to some, but I can assure you it is something we all can learn. And that each of us is consciously and unconsciously already listening. The fourth century desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, “wisely said, “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first.”[ii] Twenty-first century author and spiritual director, Nancy L. Bieber writes, “When we avoid places in ourselves where fear dwells, we limit our knowing of ourselves and our freedom to become who we can be.”[iii] So first we listen to ourselves, our fears as well as our dreams. This is holy listening and God is with us here. This is not a mysterious, woo-woo process, it is a process of slowing down to be with our selves. To reflect, even daydream, as well as to meditate and pray. If individual fears grow overwhelming, there are many people to accompany us professionally, therapists, pastors, spiritual directors. And we accompany one another in lay pastoral care, in prayer and study groups, in coffee hour conversation. Spirit is always present guiding us. Listening to Spirit will lead us to our practices of being different so that we can BE God’s change in the world, live God’s dreams and visions.
Perhaps you are wondering about tangible ways a faith community can work to be different in our world. Let’s start with communication. We are church together in a contentious and duplicitous world. A world full of rumor, half-truths, triangulating gossip. How can we practice being different for change in this world? How do we practice more direct and transparent communication with one another when conflicts arise as a way of being different in our world? We are church together in a world where it has become okay to be harsh, even mean to one another in a disguised effort to be direct. This comes out particularly in written communication because we do not have to be face to face. How will we invite just and kind communication when times are tough in our community? Practicing different communication in our faith community would empower us to advance peace-filled communication as a difference in our world.
We live in a changing time of involvement as we have come out of the isolation of pandemic times. We are all re-evaluating how we want to spend our time and where. I recently spoke with a member of our church who worked for Volunteers of America. She told me how volunteer patterns are changing in every non-profit agency. People want to be involved in something vital and hands-on and often commit to one event at a time, rather than a series of board or committee meetings. How do we practice transforming our ways of inviting volunteers into meaningful, community building projects that will be life-giving? The days of filling boards and committees with warm bodies are gone.
We have made a step in this direction through our Ministry Match online survey. It has been enormously helpful in starting the conversations to get people involved with their gifts in Plymouth’s programs and outreach. If you haven’t taken Ministry Match, go to plymouthucc.org/ministrymatch. It will only takes 3-5 minutes of your time and you will learn where you can best get engaged at Plymouth and how to get more information on those places of connection. Getting in engaged is also a way to do deeper into connecting within and listening to Spirit.
These are two ways to jump start deeper transformation in our community as we listen deeply to Spirit, in the quietness of our hearts, in the dialogue of study groups, here in worship, as we care for one another and fellowship together, as we serve one another and serve our neighbors in the world. Spirit is already revealing in our minds, in our imaginations and hearts, new dreams and visions for making the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived visible and viable here and now.
If we listen, we will be led! Even – especially - when we think we do not have enough people, money, resources, blah, blah, blah, I could go on and on. When we think there is not enough, our ears can be blocked to Spirit’s call and abundance. But we must keep listening! We may not see a way forward immediately, but I can assure you that listening together to God, a way will be made. Let us stop reacting against this painful, recent past that we have just all been through together in our pandemic, divisive times and be present to the fertility and fecundity of God’s emerging future for our beloved community.
Listening to the Spirit’s call we will focus on what is possible, not what is wrong. Listening we will focus on forgiveness and grace with one another. Listening we will dream holy dreams and see visions of God’s new life like Drs. King, Barber and Theoharis. We will all be prophets of holy change in a world that so needs the justice and love of God. My dear friends of God, the Holy Spirit is being poured out upon us all, now, always and forever! May we listen, pay attention, and receive Spirit’s abundance and blessings. Amen and Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
[i] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 164).
[ii] Nancy L. Bieber, Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way, (Skylight Paths Publishing, Nashville, TN: 2016, 32.)
Organizing Around Joy
Isaiah 35.1,3-10 and Matthew 11.1-6
December 11, 2022; Third Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … 3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: "Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompence, redemption]; with divine [justice and restoration] God will come to save you." 5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won't travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won't get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The LORD's ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27681-27706).
1When Jesus finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ, [the Messiah, the Human One] was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" 4Jesus responded, "Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don't stumble and fall because of me." - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38242-38249).
In the ancient traditions of Advent today is “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday of rejoicing! Rejoicing even when we see so many shadows of sadness and grief in our world. We light the candle of Joy in the face of sadness and grief. Not because we are denying the sadness and grief, but because we know a bigger story. We know this story because of the testimonies of our ancestors in faith, like the prophet, Isaiah, because of the life and love of our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah and Jesus knew the bigger, resilient story of the Holy ONE’s presence and work in the world. With his people Isaiah was facing a world going up in flames as the Babylonians attacked and conquered neighboring countries, threatened Israel, eventually conquering it as well. The chapter preceding the joyful one we just heard together is dire, full of doom. It reminds me what we hear from climate change activists. Dire and immediate warnings…. and necessarily so! May we listen and act accordingly! It reminds me of what we hear and see from Ukraine and other war-ravaged nations in our world community. The devastations that we human beings wreak upon one another. May we listen and respond compassion! I am also reminded of the first stanza of the poem that is the centerpiece of our Advent devotional for this third week. It is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Just Like Job.”
My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.[i]
In the face of all this grief and sadness and destruction, hearing and living the promises of God from the prophet in Isaiah is a stronghold and refuge. “Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompense, and redemption]…” Healing will happen, the blind will see, the lame walk, the earth will be healed with streams of living water and the desert will bloom! There is a highway called the Holy Way to walk towards healing, a way to walk in healing. Even fools will see the way! Happiness and joy will overwhelm; grief and groaning will flee away.”
We also take heart from Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 11, echoing the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. John the Baptizer sends him a probing question from the depths for a prison cell. “Are you really the One sent from God? “Jesus says to John’s disciples who are the messengers of the question, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.” (Notice, not who you think I am or might be, but what do you see happening in the world!) “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Trust what you see and hear. Happy are those, says Jesus, who do not stumble because they second guess what they are seeing and hearing. They trust.
Jesus reminds John that dire times have been upon God’s people before, yet God brings a resilient cycle of redemption and renewal. God’s kin-dom is now and in coming and will continue to come! There is joy even in the midst of dire times. Look for it! Recognize it! Rejoice! God’s work in the world is full of joy and it is resilient. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that resilience is: “The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Justice activist, Corina Fadel speaks about resilience like this: “The way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock; then surely I can stretch myself in the shape my own path is asking of me.”[ii]
These reflections on resilience spark in me in a quiet, confident joy as I consider them with the words of Isaiah and Jesus. When bad things happen, when life goes awry, when we are faced with sadness and grief, we push back and say, “No!” “No, life! You are not doing this to me! How can I escape? How can I make this go away? I must resist!” We hurt. We are angry! Normal reactions to abnormal situations. We can, we must, acknowledge the sadness and grief before we can move further. And in the pain, the Holy invites us to sit listening for God. Waiting is not easy. But neither is resisting and refusing to listen. We wait for God, as we are waiting in this dark time of year for longer days to return. I have found that in the waiting and listening something new begins to happen, something news comes slowly, but surely. Living water bubbles up from the dry places of my soul. I learn to see again, to walk again in confidence with God. To find that highway in the desert that even fools cannot miss. And my heart can begin again to organize itself around joy.
The pain might still be there…. but it is now living alongside new life, new growth. When we stay in resistance to the pain, I am stuck in a soul-sucking quagmire. When we stop struggling against it, feel it, acknowledge it, listen quietly to it and to Spirit, then we can see and hear that the desert blooms again, there is new life even in the face of death and joy comes in the morning. Our soul can flow in and around the pain like water over river rocks. We can stretch ourselves with God’s love and compassion into the shape that our paths are asking us to take. Joy comes. Not an easy happiness that depends on circumstances, but joy that runs deep at a soul level.
Maya Angelou knows this cycle of resilience. Quoting her poem again, “Just Like Job,” she sings with the psalmists of old,
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.
You said to lean on Your arm...
The wonderful word of the Son of God. [iii]
Joy co-exists with sorrow, writes the late priest, teacher and soul-work author, Henri Nouwen, “because it is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” [iv] That can be a tough to trust, can’t it? The world does not often run on unconditional anything, much less love. Everything has a price, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the miracle love of Christmas. God’s unconditional love comes in the baby, the Christ Child, God-with-us in the flesh in the world. God’s love is vulnerable. It invites our love. It grows into the powerful message and model of Jesus who lived God’s love even unto death and beyond.
On the path of Advent, we wait and listen in these darkened times. We wait for the time when we celebrate once again the resilience of God’s love made human. We wait for the light to break through in Hope, Peace and now, today, in joy. Joy, that deep well-spring of Love that fuels the realm of God on earth. Joy that comes in the face of, co-exists with, sadness, pain, and grief. Joy is what we can organize our hearts and minds and lives around as we make our way in the world walking Holy highways of justice-seeking, of kindness, of compassion to make God’s realm visible wherever we might be.
With Maya Angelou, let us cry out to the Holy One, saying,
….I’m stepping out on Your word.
I’m stepping out on Your word.
Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets [poem here]
Friends of God gathered here this morning … let us step out on God’s word this day, Joy!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (Random House, New York NY: 2015, 168.) Read poem here.
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 123.)
[iii] Angelou, 168-169.
[v] Angelou, 169.
“Sharing is Who We Are”
October 9, 2022; Second Sunday of Stewardship
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 When you have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the [HOLY ONE] your God will choose as a dwelling for God’s holy presence.
3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the [HOLY ONE] [our]God that I have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] swore to our ancestors to give us." 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the [HOLY ONE] your God, 5 you shall make this response before the [HOLY ONE] your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, [a stranger,] few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the [HOLY ONE] the God of our ancestors; the [HOLY ONE] heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The [HOLY ONE] brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;9 and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, [HOLY ONE,] have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites, [the priests] and the aliens, [the strangers,] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the [HOLY ONE] your God has given to you and to your house.
At the time of the story we just heard, the Hebrew people had been wandering, nomadic people for at least two generations as they came out of exile in Egypt following God’s lead. They were faithful people some days and others not so much. Sound familiar? According to this ancient, remembered story they receive an inheritance of land from God, land promised to their ancestors, that they are to share with the Levites and aliens. The Levites were the tribe of priests who had no land of their own to grow crops because they attended to the people’s covenant life with God. The aliens were those not of the twelve tribes of Israel. People who had joined them in their wanderings or people of other faiths – some already living in the land - or people who were immigrants. This whole story is about remembering to remember! Remember God who liberates and sustains the people. Remember to bring the first fruits of your inherited land to God so that they can be shared with those who are in need. Why? Because this inherited land belongs to God. And you, the people, belong to God. Therefore, the first act of God’s community is sharing. These were the Hebrews, God’s people, remembering and seeking to live out the justice and compassion of the One God they followed who had called them long ago, brought them out of exile and into a good land.
In our stewardship campaign this year we are remembering who we are after the exile of pandemic lockdown. We are Plymouth! As Hal likes to say, we are an outpost community of faith on the plains of CO furthering the kingdom, the kindom of God that Jesus announced is already within and among us. We are an interdependent beloved community of folks seeking to follow the ways of God’s Love we know through Jesus. We strive for simplicity of living and working together, yet we are also a complex community of intertwined relationships, passions, and purposes. Miraculously, the Spirit of the Holy comes along to guide us when lose our way, when we struggle, when we fail, as well as when we are at our best. As our 2022 Stewardship campaign materials tell us, “we were forced into a new era, a new way for us to be church,”[i] through our last three years of exile in pandemic protocols. Like our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we must remember who we are after exile and learn to live in a new land. Like our ancestors we stand at the threshold of a new life hearing the guidance of Moses of how best to live in that new land. Remember who you are, God’s beloveds. Remember who gave you this land. Remember to share.
Our stewardship materials invite us to remember through some salient questions: “What does Plymouth mean to you? How does being part of the community express your life of faith and your identity? How does this unique expression of God’s Realm speak to your greatest need and longings?”[ii] One of the things Plymouth is to me is sharing. I have learned so much about sharing and being someone who shares during my years at Plymouth. My favorite, and most recent example, is the Student Welcome Event we had in August to welcome and equip CSU international students and those in the Lutheran Campus Ministry Housing Security program. Our fellowship hall and north patio area was hall filled to the brim with household goods to GIVE AWAY to those students. Not to sell at some low price, but to GIVE AWAY! What a picture of the wealth of America that can be shared! With those arriving in our land with just a couple of suitcases of clothes or those coming to college as first-generation students from poor families with little resources! Most of us have so much stuff, my friends! And what a joy it is share! Not to give away worn out things to ARC, but to share things in our own houses that are barely or rarely used. Or to share goods we have the money to go out a purchase. Then give away something new! I watched in wonder as that day unfolded with the magic of smiles and gratitude. A microcosm of what could be in our world if those of us with the top 10% - 20% of the wealth would share more with those in need. Gift economy.
Opportunities to share at Plymouth abound! Through faithfully giving our financial resources through our annual Stewardship campaign, through Share the Plate each month, through our four yearly UCC special offerings. Through events such as CROP Walk and the annual Youth Sleep Out for Homelessness Prevention. Through the many, many opportunities to share the privilege of our wealth through the Mission Marketplace coming up November 5 and 6. Now then think of the ways you share resources of time as volunteers with Faith Family Hospitality and the Immigration Team sponsoring our beloved Afghani family, through volunteering for Ministry Marketplace! We are like a busy, bustling community of ants! Really! Ants “tell each other where food is, not hoarding individually, but operating on a principle that the more of them who gather food, the more food they will have as a community.”[iii] The more they have to share! And our community extends beyond these walls into the world!
Think of the ways your share yourself in relationship through Christian Formation book discussions and study groups, through volunteering with our children in Godly Play Sunday school, through prayer groups and fellowship groups, through helping with memorial service receptions and in the seasonal yard clean-ups and caring for the memorial garden. I could go on and on! Think of the ways you share yourselves in relationships with Plymouth and the wider community working for justice through our new Climate Action Ministry Team and our Ending Gun Violence Ministry Team. Our new Ministry Match survey and database program is empowering our ability to share ourselves in relationship, to quickly integrate people new to our community who want to be involved. (If you haven’t taken the Ministry Match survey, please do! You can find it right here in the bulletin insert! If you are new and not yet involved, click on the ministries you were matched with in your survey results to discover who to contact so you can get involved!)
We are like ants, gathering resources to share. We are also like trees in complex and life-giving relationship with one another. Think of all the trees that grow from common root systems underground as one being reaching up in many bodies – birch, ash, aspen, mangrove. Think of how oak trees wrap their roots around each other under the earth, thus surviving even hurricane strength winds. Think of the mycelium, the threading network of fibers that communicates between trees, particularly around toxic growth, and thus protects the trees from harm.[iv] We are sharing in ever deepening and intertwined relationships with one another that give us life and that also extend beyond our doors bringing life to the wider world. As the psalmist sang, we are like a community of trees planted by streams of living water, the living water of Love. We nurture and we share.
We are Plymouth! It gives us joy to share, doesn’t it! It’s okay to feel good when we share. However, we are not invited by God to share because it makes us feel good. We are invited to share because we are made in God’s image, with the spark of God’s Love divine within us. And sharing is the essence of God’s love. The Holy ONE is always sharing. Let us remember this when it feels scary to share of our time or talents or financial resources. We are part of God, so sharing is who we are
Sharing is who we are as human beings. In the very depths of who we are as human community. “Building community is to the collective, [the whole of humanity,] like spiritual practice is to the individual.”[v] It takes generosity and vulnerability to build community. This is what Moses was trying to teach the Hebrew people. Generosity means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached.” Bringing our first fruits, not our left-overs. Vulnerability means [showing up] and showing your needs” so that even as you give, you can receive.[vi] How can we increase our sharing and strengthen the ties that gather us for new growth after exile? Through generosity and vulnerability as we gather like ants, telling others where to find bread of the earth and the bread of heaven. Through vulnerability as we are connected at the roots like trees, connected at the roots of our faith, sharing nurture, healing, and strength.
We are Plymouth. We have a God-given ability to share. We are invited, more than invited, we are guided, and directed to share. Sharing is who we are. Thanks be to God!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Plymouth 2022 Stewardship Matierials
[iii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 86.)
[iv] brown, 85.
[v] brown, 88.
[vi] brown, 91.
Grief & Change & Joy
Jeremiah 4.23-28a & Psalm 31.1-5,9-10,14b-15a
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The images in our scripture texts today echo the inner landscape of grief as I have experienced and while everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’m guessing that some of these images may resonate with you. The sorrow, despair, and anger, the need for solace and help that grief brings are held in these texts. This day in September, 9/11, has held cries and echoes of grief in our nation for 21 years. Each year we remember when terrorist extremists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and attempted to attack our nation’s capital. We have each experienced many kinds of grief since then or before then. and acutely so in the last two and a half years. New grief brings up old grief. Grief is more a part of the landscape of our lives than we want to acknowledge, and it has always been so for human being. Listen with me to these ancient words of scripture from a prophet grieving for his nation, Israel. And from a poet, a song-writer, singing a grieving prayer for protection from the sorrows of the world.
23I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. 24I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. 25I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. 26I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the [Holy ONE], before [the] fury. 27The [Holy ONE] proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not destroy it completely. 28Therefore, the earth will grieve …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 29664-29676). Kindle Edition.
I take refuge in you, LORD. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! 2Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me! 3You are definitely my rock and my fortress. Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! 4Get me out of this net that's been set for me because you are my protective fortress. 5I entrust my spirit into your hands; you, [Holy ONE], God of faithfulness-- you have saved me. … 9Have mercy on me, [Holy God], because I'm depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. 10My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. … 14… [Yet]I trust you, [GOD]! I affirm, "You are my God." 15My future is in your hands. …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20310-20340). Kindle Edition.
It came as a shock to me at the age of twenty-four that grief would be a part of my whole life. I guess I thought that grief was something you could avoid if you worked hard at having a happy ever after and worked hard at being a good person, a good Christian. But at twenty-four, I learned that, indeed, bad things happen to good people when my youngest sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Not her fault or the fault of the teenage driver who was her friend. Someone else’s mistake. Still, it happened and could not be undone. Big grief, in my face.
We all come to a reckoning with individual grief at some point in life – through a death, an illness, a job loss, a relationship loss. If we are lucky, we first learn as children surrounded by loving companions, parents, family to grieve through the loss of a pet. This teaches us in a very real but gentler situation the ways of sorrow and how to mourn, how to externalize the pain in our hearts through ritual and words. Beyond our individual griefs are our experiences, like today, 9/11, of communal grief. You can probably each name your first realization of communal grief. My first was as a second grader on the playground in Fort Worth, Texas, when the announcement came that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in our neighboring city, Dallas. Our children and youth today have witnessed with us too many of these communal/national/worldwide events of grief in the last several years.
Grief is a part of life. Sorrow is a part of life. Do any of us like this? No. Our culture considers grief to be the enemy of joy in our lives. How can anything be right, be okay, be normal when we are grieving? The pain is too great. It hurts too much. So, if you are anything like me, perhaps, you sometimes try to deny the grief, compartmentalize it, to move through it. You push it aside to find meaning in your work or in helping other people, or in your family, your hobbies. We can focus on anything, even to the point of addiction, to avoid grief - work, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, relationships, substances from coffee to sugar, to alcohol. Anything to not feel the pain. So that we can make it through another day. We may run from grief, but we cannot hide because we hold grief in our bodies no matter how hard we try to ignore it. And grief comes with every change in life, every change. Even good change.
The prophet, Jeremiah, whom scholars call the “weeping prophet,” lamented all the changes coming to the people of Israel, with their idolatrous ways, as Jerusalem was invaded, and temple torn down. His world was drastically changed…we might being feeling the same as we grieve with the people of Ukraine and as we come to grips with climate change. “The mountains are quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. … there is no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. …the fertile land is a desert; all its towns were in ruins…the earth is grieving.” The psalmist cries out for us, “Holy ONE, listen closely to me! …. Guide me. … I entrust my spirit into your hands… My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. [Yet]I trust you! … My future is in your hands. …” The psalmist’s Hebrew name for God in this song is,” el emet, the God who can be relied on and believed in, trusted in.”[i] When I feel my deepest moments of grief, I cling to trust in this same God, trusting that she will continue to be who she has steadfastly been revealed to be through the changes of millennia.
Change is always with us. Grief at some level is always with us. What are we to do but soldier on, gritting our teeth? I have felt this way….have you? So much so that I was surprised to read an essay by social activist leader, Malkia Devich-Cyril, former executive director of MediaJustice, inviting me to befriend grief. What if grief is not the enemy? What if we can learn about change and joy in the very middle of grief? This is what Malkia learned about the death of her mother from sickle cell anemia and the death of her wife from cancer, both at ages way too young.[ii]
Prompted by the experience and work of Malkia Devich-Cyril and adrienne maree brown, her colleague and friend, I am learning that grief is holy and necessary for real change. “To have a movement that breathes,” writes Malkia, “you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.”[iii] These two women of color have been working for and in social change movements for over twenty-five years, so I trust their observations along with the words of the ancient prophet and psalmist. We live in and work with this beloved community of faith, which is also a social change movement. We are the movement of the kingdom, the kin-dom of God. Jesus, our movement leader, knew that grief was a skill for change. He wept at the death of this friend, Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem, the City of God, that struggled with oppression, with greed, with poverty. Jesus knew that grief is holy. Grief is a friend of God. And grief can be our friend, if we allow it to move through our bodies, teaching us to embrace change, to love and serve with more compassion, to see each other and the earth as God’s beloveds.
To begin, we remember that grief is non-linear. It is a time-traveling emotion that appears again and again in our lives in new and old forms, for new and old reasons. It is iterative and repetitive. It spirals through life even when things are going great, even when we are rejoicing, even in our joy.[iv] Joy is not the opposite of grief. It is a beloved sibling of grief. The opposite of grief is indifference. If we truly do not care, we will not grieve. Grief is a profound out-pouring of love and in love there this always joy, even if it is sitting right next to grief.
If understanding grief is a skill for understanding life, for understanding change, for understanding more about faith, what do we need to know?
This is what we learn when we befriend our grief. We learn that If you don’t really care about something, if you are indifferent to it, you don’t grieve when you lose it. So, I suggest to all of you in this room that because you have chosen to come to worship in a faith community, to be in community, if only for an hour, that you are not indifferent to Life. You love Life. You are working to love yourself in God’s image and to love others. You are not indifferent. And so, you are most likely bringing your grief here with you, large or small, personal and/or communal. And you are bringing your greatest joys which may be closely bound to your grief. A community of faith is a safe place to become grounded in our grief. This is a place where we learn with others to grieve, to lament, to rejoice and to give thanks. I’m glad you are here today.
That was a lot of information about a subject that we don’t like to talk about – grief. Take a moment and let whatever you need to hear, sink in. As the psalmist reminds us, this is a place of refuge in the presence of the Holy and one another. Remember that you are breathing. (pause)
After the service today, as a way of continuing this service and grieving together, you are invited to make a prayer flag and place it on our tree there in the yard. You will find the flags or streamers and markers in the Fellowship Hall. Write your grief, your prayer, your lament, your joy on the flag and place it on the tree. This is an act of mourning that can take the grief you feel and move it through your body. It can be an act of memory and thanksgiving that we do together on this day that we remember grief.
Let’s pray together: Holy ONE, you are with us before we call your name. Teach us to grieve so that we can in turn give and receive your love. Teach us to befriend the grief of life’s changes that we may be agents of your change for justice and love in our world. Amen.
[i] James L. May, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1994, 143).
[ii] Malkia Devich-Cyril, “To Give Your Hands to Freedom, First Give Them to Grief,” ed. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change, The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2021, 64-79).
[iii] Ibid., 79.
[iv] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 105-107).
[v] Devich-Cyril, 78.
[vi] Ibid., 75-78.
[vii] Ibid., 78.
“Hidden in Plain Sight”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
31[Jesus] told another parable to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It's the smallest of all seeds. But when it's grown, it's the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches."
33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough."
34Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. 35This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: I'll speak in parables; I'll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.
CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38380-38389). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Do you remember the great fun, especially on a summer’s evening, of playing “Hide and Seek?” The adrenaline rush of finding just the right hiding place and then trying to stay quiet enough so as not to be found? The suspense of stealthily seeking? The squeals of laughter when you were found and then racing the seeker back to home base? So much fun! Think about all the stories you’ve read or seen on the big of little screen about finding hidden treasure. Or even the love of research or discovery as an adult in whatever field you might be in….discovering something new in science, or a new formula as a mathematician, or a new way of constructing an environmental savvy building as an engineer or architect, or new ways of helping a social justice situation, a new client or customer to help, new plot twists as a writer or word pictures as a poet, a new chord progression as a musician. At times when we finally discover what we are looking for, we marvel….well, that was there all along…hidden in plain sight! We just had to look from a different angle, perspective, turn over one more stone – metaphorically or literally.
Parables are wisdom hidden in plain sight by using comparison, setting two unlike things side by side. Jesus used parables all the time to teach the crowds and his disciples. He was steeped in the Hebrew scripture use of mashal, enigmatic language whose meaning was not immediately apparent. It was riddle-like. Language “intended to tease the mind into insight rather than communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.”[i] The mashal of Hebrew scriptures and the parables of Jesus were both meant to conceal and reveal the wisdom and the activity of God.
Now why do Jesus, and the prophets before him, speak to us in this concealing/revealing kind of way? Why don’t you just say what you mean, Jesus? I think wise ones down through the centuries and through all traditions knew that riddles, the odd comparisons of parables, language that teased the mind and heart slow us down as humans. We need to listen as human beings, not just as human doings. We can get so busy accomplishing, building, making, doing whatever needs to be done that we forget to slow down and listen. A well told parable, story, riddle, poetic image slows us down. We must take time to contemplate, to consider the meanings in our heads and let the wisdom sink into our hearts. This is the sacred activity, activity of the Holy, of God. The wisdom of the Divine is not taught so much as experienced.
Jesus tells the crowds, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in the soil. Something hidden happens there in the darkness of the soil. And the seed begins to grow. The seed grows into the largest of plants…as large as a tree and it is shelter for many living creatures.” What happens to that seed hidden in the dark? We know that inside the seed there is the possibility of new life – an embryo plant. With the right amount of water, the seed splits open and begins to grow a root to gather more water and then a sprout to break the surface of the soil so that it can get sunlight and begin the process of photosynthesis. This happens so often, is so much a part of life around us, that we don’t stop to be amazed. But it is amazing! And hidden as it is, seed growth is a small pattern for the holy work of creation. Nothing would survive on earth without this pattern. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
And Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like yeast hidden in flour dough that causes the dough to grow, to double, triple in size, until it can feed more people than we might have ever imagined.” In fact, hidden in Jesus’s parable is an incredible measure, three measures of flour, translated into a bushel in the Common English Bible. That’s a lot of bread…more than one might make in your kitchen just for fun. Jesus wants us to know that God’s activity can so small like yeast, yet it activates so much! We know that yeast is a single-celled microorganism. It is millions of years old. It reproduces by budding, a new cell growing on the first cell and so on and so forth. When we add it to flour and other bread ingredients it starts to feed on the sugars in the ingredients creating the rising action. This action hidden, in bread making, is another small pattern of the holy work of creation. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
If the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, is like a mustard seed or like yeast, then God’s activity in the world is seemingly small and concealed. Yet, mysteriously, through the energy of God’s love, God’s hidden activity grows exponentially and is revealed as powerfully nourishing. Wow! I find this pattern fascinating. It reminds me of fractals, never-ending patterns found repeating in creation. Examples of fractals are the spiral patterns in our fingertips that show up in the galaxies, patterns in ferns that are in tree branches, patterns in river deltas that are in the very structures of our lungs. A fractal is pattern in the micro that is reflected in the macro and vice versa. Thinking metaphorically, each human being made in the image of God would be a fractal of the Holy One. We are not God, but we hold the patterns of God within us. We need to pay attention!
American author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist, Grace Lee Boggs, wrote, “Transform yourself to transform the world.”[ii] This is thinking of change at the fractal level, at a seed level, at the level of yeast. I know that in this faith community we want to transform the world with and through God’s love and justice. Our first step must be allowing our own transformation through God’s love and justice. Are we allowing the nurturing presence of God into our own hearts and souls, as a seed allows in water and sunlight to grow and mature into the plant it is meant to be? Are we allowing the yeast of God’s Spirit to grow within our lives, inspiring exponential growth that keeps us nourished as we keep on keeping on for justice? Just as we slow down to hear parables, we must slow ourselves to attend to the slow work of God inside of us, transforming our fear and greed and false ego and self-esteem that is too low or too high. The Holy One will bring transformation in unexpected ways, if we slow down and pay attention through prayer, spiritual practice, study, service, faithful fellowship.
It’s a spiral process for as we slow down to attend to our own change, we are also a part of systemic change. Automatically, without any organizing or activism – though those activities have their place. Our transformation influences and catalyzes systemic change without us even knowing. adrienne maree brown writes, “As we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of the patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro.”[iii]
How do we work in community, in this faith community, like fractal patterns of God, like the activity of seeds or yeast? Hmmmm…..I don’t have an analytical answer for that. However, I see the patterns. You all volunteer for ministries in our community, from FFH to children’s Sunday school, to youth group, to making cookies and helping to serve them after a memorial service, to being deacons and trustees, to working with immigrants and welcoming low income and international students back to campus with a housewarming give away, to praying for one another. I could go on and on about all the patterns of God’s activity in the world that I see hidden then revealed within our community. It’s happening! And so, I must assume that the transformations of God’s activity in your lives is happening as well. Hidden, precious, intimate, and yet revealed in your faith and faith works. Keep on keeping on!
One more place, one more reveal, I have wondered about is this… a Beloved Community Covenant. Over the years, we have declared through UCC process, through study, discussion, and prayer. Then finally through a vote that we are a Peace with Justice congregation, an Open and Affirming congregation and an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. We strive to live into these declarations. Now the UCC doesn’t have an official process for being a Beloved Community Congregation. But there are UCC churches that have Community Covenants in which they have through discussion, study, prayer, and discernment laid out a covenant saying, “This is how we will relate to one another through God’s love and justice.” Your staff has an official covenant that we remind ourselves of from time to time. In our staff relationships we will 1.) Speak to a colleague and not about, in the case of conflict. 2.) Once a decision is made in staff meeting, we stand shoulder to shoulder in upholding it. 3.) Always assume the best of our colleagues in their intentions and actions.
What if we took to heart that as a faith community, we are a fractal, a pattern of the greater world? We know the stresses and conflicts, the divisiveness of our culture, our world. If the micro can mirror and transform the macro, what if we extended the covenant we make in membership into a Beloved Community Covenant as a pathway to greater transformation within us and within our wider world? What if in taking this to heart, we had a stated Beloved Community Covenant, created through prayer, study, discussion, and consensus, that we refer to when tough times happen and there are disagreements in discernment about our way forward as church? What if we could always go back to this covenant that has come out of the transforming hearts, minds, and lives of beloved individuals, of you? What if this Beloved Community Covenant reminded us that we hold the seeds, the fractals, the microcosm of God’s love and justice within us to be in relationship with one another? How might we be transformed as a faith community and be greater transforming activity in God’s wider world? What might happen if we truly live out the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, the good news of the parables Jesus proclaimed? What if … we succeed in revealing that God’s Beloved Community is here among us and within us and active in the world? What if?
Amen and amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Matthew, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 147.)
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 53.)
[iii] Ibid., 59.
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Intro: Our text today from the Gospel of Matthew comes after Jesus has been baptized by John and has spent his time of retreat and trial in the wilderness. He has just emerged from that experience to discover what is happening with John and to begin his own ministry of preaching and teaching and healing.
12Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of [the ancient tribes of] Zebulun and Naphtali. 14This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:
15Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.
17From that time Jesus began to announce, "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37965-37972). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
For the Word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us,
for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
I was in high school when David Bowie’s “Changes” came out in 1972. I’m sure I heard it but didn’t really notice it. I was listening to Loggins and Messina, Carole King, John Denver with a little Allman Brothers thrown in. Now, thanks to our Director of Music, Mark Heiskenen, I have finally fully encountered and read the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Changes.” And watched him perform it live on YouTube. I’ve always been a late bloomer.
(Turn and face the strain)
(Don't want to be a richer man)
(Turn and face the strain)
(Just gonna have to be a different man)[i]
So goes the first refrain. The literature nerd in me wants to analyze the meaning of all the poetry in Bowie’s song, but I will spare you. Suffice it to say…. the song is about facing change and facing it within ourselves before and along with facing it in culture, in the world we live in. Facing change within to create change the without. And there’s a bit about the resistance we face from the world when we face into change.
Jesus could have sung along with Bowie as he faced into ministry and headed out of the solitude of the wilderness into the chaos of society. “Don’t want to be a richer man; turn and face the strain; just gonna be a different man; ch-ch-changes.” He was getting ready to face off with the powers of empire and establishment as he called God’s people to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Other gospel writers use the phrase, the kingdom of God; Matthew, good Jewish Christian that he was, defers to kingdom of heaven instead because Holy One’s name is too mighty to even pronounce. Either way, Jesus is proclaiming a new vision of God being in the world and with the world. It is at hand, its near! It’s not a place…it’s a way of being in God’s ways, a way of living, and the time for it is now!
Now we know from family systems theory that when one person in a system decides to change, to grow up, to mature and to be as healthy as possible, to stop enabling the dis-ease of the family or the community, that resistance occurs. Oddly, the system, the community resists healthful change at first, before it can spread its healing power throughout the whole system. Jesus certainly experiences that resistance throughout his ministry. He is proclaiming God’s ways “to those who have treated God’s sovereignty with disdain.”[ii] John the Baptist has experienced that resistance as he proclaimed Jesus’ coming, preaching the new vision of the kingdom of God. He has been arrested and we know he will be executed, a foreshadowing of what is to come for Jesus. The powers of the worlds, those who disdain God’s ways, do NOT like change, do they? They like to move comfortably in their habits of greed, oppression, patriarchy and fear without challenge. Too Bad, says Jesus! Those are not the ways of God! There is a new way of justice, compassion, healing and love! It is God’s way and it is here! Time to change!
Too Bad, we say as the followers of Jesus. Bullying, lying, excluding others, scarcity thinking, greed these are not the ways of God! Poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare, these are not the ways of God! God’s ways are compassion, inclusion of all, abundance, enough resources, food and shelter for all, listening to every voice! Things need to change! And as we proclaim God’s ways we too meet/ have met resistance.
Change…..we are weary of change and of proclaiming change in so many ways. Yet it is the stuff of life. How do we come alongside the changes God is calling us to proclaime in life-giving ways rather than life draining ways? I recently Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel, The Parable of the Sower. Published in 1993 and set in the years 2024-2027, it is powerful and prophetic. Times are apocalyptic, climate change and destruction, political upheaval so devastating that people must live in walled communities for protection, unchecked violence is everywhere, water is precious and expensive. As the protagonist, a Black teenage young woman, observes civilization crumbling around her, she begins to write verses of observation to stay hopeful. “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end we yield to God. We adapt and endure…. And God is Change.”[iii]
Now I’m still chewing theologically on the assertion “God is Change…. Shape God.” Yes,…. and I’m not sure I can or want to sum up God in that one word. However, it got me thinking about the change that we are facing in our world here in 2022. Climate change, political upheaval, gun violence, pandemic…. scary changes. AND there are miraculous changes at work in our world as well, some made by human hands and some within the very systems of the natural world. So how do we live and work with the changes of our world proclaiming and manifesting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? How can we come alongside change so that even if it feels like upheaval, it is life-giving, full of justice and non-violent truth-telling?
Pondering these questions, Spirit led as Spirit does in sometimes circuitous routes to a system of “social change work” that is vital and happening in our country called, “emergent strategy.” Emergent strategy has been developed particularly by women and people of color as well as our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community. I think its time we let those who have been marginalized take the lead. I want to learn from them. I am learning from the book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. brown, a social justice facilitator of twenty-five plus years, healer, writer and doula, asks: “what can [the natural world] teach us about how to be humans and how to be humans in a better relationship with each other?” What emerges from brown’s question is “emergent strategy,” ways of change for our time. Ways of change that, I believe, go hand in hand with the ways of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand and among us!” Indulge me as I briefly explain her work a bit more because it this way of change-making will be informing my preaching in the months to come.
“Emergence,” says brown in a podcast interview, “is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. Strategy is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, while still moving towards our vision of freedom and the future and being in [the practice of emergence.] … how do we get in a right relationship with change that allows us to harness and shape things, towards community, towards liberation, towards justice?”[iv] And the strategic practices of change are taken from creation.
What if we look at the marvel of communication that happens in flocks of birds, such as a murmuration of starlings which can be huge, upwards of over a million birds at a time. I’m not sure I have seen one live in the world, but I have seen videos. “They move in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage the larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity.”[v] Wow, it’s all about relationship, not policy! Or perhaps, the policy is in the relationship! The kingdom of heaven is at hand and is like a murmuration of starlings! How can we work like that as church?
Or consider a stand of oak trees surviving the fiercest hurricane winds, such as Hurricane Katrina, because their roots are so intertwined underground in life-giving care for and communication with one another? Or the underground mycelial network of mushrooms that not only creates communication, but food for the growing mushrooms above ground as it also detoxifies the soil? The kingdom of heaven is relationship like oak trees and mushrooms! So, I ask myself, how can we learn emergent strategic systems of change from these miraculous, yet ordinary, beautiful relationships of nature to be a better outpost for the realm of God, a better church community turning to face the strain of change as our friend, David Bowie prompts us?
Change is within us, upon us and we cannot hide, can we? God has given us the leadership of Jesus’s call…. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!" God gives us the spiritual imagination and social justice intelligence of change leaders such as adrienne maree brown, the prophetic imagination of writers like Octavia Butler. The world is at a tipping point, longing for relationship leadership, ripe for the justice of non-violent change-making that works with creation not against it. God’s realm is at hand, upon us, we are in it NOW!
So, I leave you with this challenge, look and see how Spirit is among us transforming our hearts and lives through relationship and communication for the challenge of the kingdom of heaven. It’s already happening! And how can we strengthen our changing community in new and vital ways, such as emergent strategy, so that we focus on the kindom of heaven rather than majoring on minor issues that can pre-occupy our time out of fear and lack of vision?
(Turn and face the strain)
Jesus is calling, calling us to be the change we want to see! The kingdom heaven is coming!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] David Bowie, “Changes” on YouTube
[ii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2009, 29.)
[iii] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower ebook, (Open Road Integrated Media: New York, NY, 2012, 10, 63.)
[v] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 67.)
2 Kings 2.1-14
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
2Now the LORD was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?"
Elisha said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 4Elijah said, "Elisha, stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went to Jericho. 5The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?" He said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 6Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So both of them went on together. 7Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. 8Elijah then took his [mantle, his prophet’s] coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. 9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "What do you want me to do for you before I'm taken away from you?" Elisha said, "Let me have twice your spirit." 10Elijah said, "You've made a difficult request. If you can see me when I'm taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don't see me, it won't happen." 11They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. 12Elisha was watching, and he cried out, "Oh, my father, my father! Israel's chariots and its riders!" When he could no longer see him, Elisha [in his deep grief] took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
13Then Elisha picked up the mantle, the coat, that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. 14He took the [mantle] that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, "Where is the LORD, Elijah's God?" And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over. [And on the other side he began his new journey as the lead prophet of Israel.]
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 13113-13133).
For the Word of God in Scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
When I found this story in today’s lectionary texts, I was delighted to rediscover it and compelled to use it for my text. Delighted because it is a biblical story that I have told several times over the years. I love its drama of a journey toward the unknown, the mystical crossing of the river – twice! The dramatic image of the fiery chariots and horsemen or riders whisking Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind. I am moved by the humanity of the prophet, Elisha, as he deals with the impending departure/death of his mentor, his denial of the loss, his fierce loyalty, his grief and finally, his acceptance of a new role in the leadership of God’s people. I find the schools, the groups of prophets that nag him humorously and humanly irritating ….why do they need to rub it in that Elijah is not long for this world? Are they jealous of Elisha’s relationship with Elijah? Are they warning him about getting too caught up in the older prophet’s provocative ministry of social justice?
Beyond all these delightful storytelling speculations, I was compelled by the story because of the image of passing the mantle. Many of you have been in the bittersweet situation of anticipating retirement from a long-held profession, maybe wondering what legacy you leave? Most of us do not expect to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind upon retirements.
Revisiting this story prompted me to ask myself, what is the mantle of ministry I will leave with this community when I leave the staff? I have some ideas and will share those over the coming months. I know that I am not a legendary, trouble-making prophet like Elijah. Far from it! I do not confront kings about their apostasy and challenge them to turn back to God. I have not raised a child from the dead as Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath. I have not been given the foresight to prophesy the beginning and end of a long drought threatening the lives of the people. Those were Elijah’s calling, not mine. I do try to speak the word of the Holy One given to me each time I preach, to lead with integrity and to help us all discover the faith of that divine spark of light living within each of us.
My contemplation of passing a mantle went beyond myself to the whole of our community. I believe we have been passed a mantle of ministry in our communal experience of the last two years. The pandemic was a Big Pause that caused a Big Shift in the ministries of our church. It was a shift like the shifting of tectonic plates. We have a new landscape of ministry now. It is vaguely familiar and very unfamiliar all at once. Like it or not, we were passed the mantle of Change with all the opportunity and risks and invitations to imagination that change requires.
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit so that he could pick up the mantle of the great prophet’s leadership. We did not ask for such a daunting gift…but we were handed it anyway. A great mantle of Change was draped over the shoulders of the church universal, not just Plymouth, by the great Pause of the pandemic during which we experienced the stark realities of a deathly virus sickening and killing so many along with a new view of the racism, the political and economic divisions in our country. Along with the epidemic of gun violence. Along with an urgent vision of the climate crisis and our responsibilities toward our mother, Earth. Like it or not, we received a double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to Change. So much so that it is dizzying and overwhelming at times. As Plymouth, our first inclination is to rush to help those affected by these seismic changes. This is what we did before the pandemic and it our passion to help the least of these and to advocate for justice.
Yet the double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to holy change starts at home. What is the phrase? Think globally, act locally. Even as we are so very sensitive and responsive to the dramatic changes in the social justice landscape of our times, our ways of being church together and of being beloved community have to be tended and rebuilt as well for the sake of God’s realm here and now.
Wow, Jane Anne! I think you might be a bit caught up in the drama of this biblical legend….its not that Big, is it? We are gathering our programs and fellowship groups and outreach ministries and worship services back together despite the seemingly never-ending cycle of masking and unmasking and new rounds of vaccines.
Yes, we are picking our way through the changes of this tectonic shift. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to a bigger challenge than trying to put the pieces of what we used to do back together with extra strength Elmer’s glue. The Holy Spirit is calling us to envision and build a new spirit of community that we have only yet glimpsed. This may entail leaving behind old programs or outdated ways of working if they no longer serve us. It will include new and unexpected ways of growing together in Christian formation, in service and even in fellowship. Along with the gift of a double portion of Holy Change comes a double portion of Holy Opportunity for greater Holy Imagination. Following the love and justice of Jesus in ways we might have never imagined before. Will we accept this powerful mantle, this double portion of Change, Opportunity and Imagination? Or will we leave it lying on the ground because we are too afraid to pick it up?
If we do not tend to the opportunity for holy change in our church – and some of the changes will be small and some large and most will be in between – then the church will not be here, healthy and strong, for us to rely on in coming years. Our strength and stamina for social justice change, for all that life throws at us, comes from the Holy One who we discover within us in the midst of the Beloved Community. Even as we tend our own souls for the work we called to do, we must tend the soul, the body and structure of our church so that it is strong for the work God is calling us to do together. Self care.
What did Elisha do first at his moment of great change, before he picked up the mantle? He grieved and he mourned the loss of his beloved mentor, Elijah. He cried out in shock and pain. He tore his garments in two…a very common sign of mourning and grief in biblical times. He could not move forward until he acknowledged his grief and mourned. He let his heart break. We need to do the same.
Our hearts, as individuals and as a community, are breaking for so many reasons already – because of gun violence, because the violence against creation, because of the implications of undoing Roe versus Wade, because of so many things in our personal lives. Take a moment to acknowledge these griefs. Griefs are never separate from one another. They build upon one another. New grief brings up old grief. And know that each breaking heart, each wounded soul in this room is precious to the Holy One.
As you acknowledge your personal grief, turn to what is breaking your heart because of the changes forced upon our church community by the pandemic? (Or if you were not have with Plymouth through the pandemic, what breaks your heart about your pandemic experience ?) The loss of friends who have found another community for worship? The loss of being able to attend the memorial service of a congregation friend or a friend’s family member? The many days of isolation? The sense of disconnection that still lingers? The loss of socialization and community for your children and youth? Is anger coming up instead of heart break? Anger comes with grief. If you feel angry that’s okay.
Take a long moment here in the safety of this sanctuary to let your heart break. If tears come, let them flow. If rage comes, clench and unclench your hands so you can let it move through your system. Our bodies are holding so much heart break and they need release. Hold your hands in front of you, cupped and turned up. Put your griefs into your hands and offer them to God. (Long pause……. 90 seconds.)
Take some deep breaths. Shake it out. Hold your hands in front of you again Now take a moment to remember all the things you are grateful for in our life together as a beloved community. In your life in the world. What makes your heart sing with gratitude? Hold these things in your hands. Offer them to the Holy One. Hold them in your heart. (Pause ….. 60 seconds)
Deep breath. Open your eyes gently. Come back to this space consciously. I hope you will reflect on these last moments at some time during the day or week ahead. I encourage you to share what came up for you with a partner, a friend, your journal. We cannot move effectively into our new Holy Spirit challenge of Change unless we first move through the sludge of our grief. We will get stuck if we don’t acknowledge what we feel. This process of grief and mourning goes hand in hand with visioning and imagining new actions of justice and building anew. Grief and gratitude never happen in a linear narrative. We will be spiraling through acknowledging our grief and moving into God’s newness for years to come. That is how life works.
As I end this morning, I leave you with a question I have borrowed from marine biologist and social justice activist, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: “What if we get it right?” As we pick up this double portion of God’s Holy Spirit calling us to Change, can we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? How do we run full-tilt towards what we love and what delights us about our life together as the Body of Christ? Guided by the holy work of our strategic plan as well as the holy surprises of the Spirit, let’s us take up the mantle of change and imagine our church community in the future through the question, “What if we get it right?” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.